UW rail tunnel gets boost

Sound Transit got tentative approval from the University of Washington yesterday to tunnel a light-rail track underneath the campus.

It's a critical step in building a $2.1 billion, 21-mile light-rail system from SeaTac to the University District. Sound Transit needed university approval to be eligible for $500 million in federal money.

"We're satisfied our needs have been met," said former Gov. Dan Evans, a member of the UW Board of Regents. Evans helped negotiate the agreement that now requires approval by the full Board of Regents.

Yesterday's accord culminated months of tense negotiations between Sound Transit and the regents, and allowed Sound Transit to meet its federal deadline.

The two sides debated a range of issues, including how to protect sensitive instruments from vibrations, how to dispose of the muck dug out of the light-rail tunnel and how to extend the light-rail line to Northgate.

The deal was clinched during a late-afternoon meeting in Seattle Mayor Paul Schell's office.

Negotiators from both sides met with Schell, a member of the Sound Transit board, to settle details.

The end result is about a 65-page draft agreement that lays out the precautions Sound Transit must take. Some of the key issues resolved:

Effect of construction. Sound Transit agreed to take steps to minimize dust, noise and odors from construction, including removing muck and clay excavated from the tunnel by barges instead of trucks.

Effect on research. The planned rail line would run near a physics research lab and the oceanography building. Scientists worried that vibrations and electromagnetic interference from the trains could harm sensitive research. Sound Transit agreed to install dampeners on the tracks and put air-cushioned tables in labs.

Northgate as the end of the line. The university wanted assurances the light-rail line would continue to Northgate. The proposed route would end at Northeast 45th Street, and the UW worries passengers getting on and off the trains would create gridlock.

Sound Transit agreed to take care of any traffic problems that might occur at Northeast 45th Street because of light rail. Bob White, executive director of Sound Transit, said the agency would do what's neccessary to prevent traffic from getting worse. The agency also promised to pursue an additional $400 million needed to extend the route to Northgate.

The university had a lot of clout in the negotiations because Sound Transit cannot take its land. Plus, Sound Transit was running out of time to put in a bid for the half-billion dollars in federal money needed to help build the system.

Sound Transit was supposed to send an application to the Federal Transit Administration on April 1, but the FTA agreed to extend the deadline until yesterday.

Sound Transit officials were worried that if they missed the deadline, Seattle might lose out to competing projects.

For now, the light-rail project appears on schedule to begin excavating about a mile-long tunnel more than 200 feet underneath the university next year. Preliminary work could start on the campus as early as January.

The route underneath UW stretches from Northeast 36th Street to 45th Street. As much as 900,000 cubic yards of muck and clay would be bored out and carted away.

Sound Transit needs to buy university property for light-rail construction, but no price has been agreed to yet.

Andrew Garber's phone message number is 206-464-2595. His e-mail address is agarber@seattletimes.com